Despite past controversies, the Academy’s nominations this year continue to reflect a disenchanting lack of diversity, especially within the acting categories.
Among the 19 performers nominated for an acting award, only one, Cynthia Erivo, is a person of color. Her nomination comes for her role as the titular character Harriet Tubman in the film “Harriet,” reflecting the Oscars’ long track record of predominantly nominating and rewarding black actors for playing slaves and servants.
The whitewashing of all the acting nominees is a massive issue, but especially one in a year with such stand-out performances by minorities. Lupita Nyong’o’s scream queen double-role in director Jordan Peele’s “Us” is no doubt worthy of a Best Actress nomination. Awkwafina’s Golden Globe-winning turn as Billi in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” where she deftly communicates the struggles of being caught between two homes an ocean apart is similarly worthy. Scarlett Johansson’s vulnerable and heart-rending performance in “Marriage Story” is deserving of the Best Actress nomination it received, but her second nomination for “Jojo Rabbit” should have gone to Zhao Shuzhen of “The Farewell” or one of the incredible supporting actresses of director Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite.”
The six nominations received by the global hit and Palme d’Or winning film “Parasite,” including Best Picture, are of incredible note. However, “Parasite’s” lack of recognition for acting-related awards remains a critical oversight. The Oscars have often overlooked Asian actors, and this trend unfortunately seems to have continued in the case of “Parasite.” The film’s audacious plot is absolutely anchored and sold by the actors and actresses at work in the film. The complexity of emotions each and every one of the cast members had to convey, ranging from mirth to guilt, often simultaneously, makes them essential to the success of “Parasite.” It is undeniable that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in refusing to recognize the merits of these actors, is continuing their pattern of discrimination.
The Oscars ignored another Asian feature, Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” for more than its performances. Its original screenplay, written by Wang and based on her personal experiences, negotiates a loving balance between two countries, two cultures and two value systems. The feelings Wang’s script communicates reflect the unease and fears of countless first-generation immigrants, but also of anyone who has experienced a severe disagreement with their family. Wang’s direction is also worthy of praise. Though “The Farewell” is only her second film, Wang is clearly coming into her own as an auteur, and her voice is fully discernible in the feature, such as in her effective use of slow motion in unexpected places.
Wang did not receive a Best Director nomination, but neither did any woman; this underscores a compounding discrimination that cuts across both gender and racial cleaveages. Shockingly, the Best Director category was composed of five male nominees and only one of them — Bong Joon-Ho — was non-white. The Academy wholly disregarded the direction of such incredible filmmakers as Wang, Alma Har’el, Lorene Scafaria, Marielle Heller and Céline Sciamma. Even Greta Gerwig, whose film “Little Women” is nominated for, among other things, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, failed to secure a directing nomination. It seems the Oscars failed to see that it takes a great director to translate a well-written screenplay into a well-made film. It doesn’t make sense to commend Gerwig’s script and overall film without acknowledging the important role she played in translating the former into the latter. In both avenues of race and gender, the Oscars have disappointed once again. Their nominations continue reinforcing harmful ideas about whose stories are important, and whose are not.
Beyond the exclusionary nature of these nominations, they were also unoriginal and repetitive. The nominees in nearly every category echoed those of previous awards shows, and the Academy overlooked the works of talented filmmakers in the process.
While most of the director nominees have established themselves as being talented filmmakers, “Joker” director Todd Phillips is the newcomer and odd addition to this category. Known for directing “The Hangover” franchise, Phillips seems to be following a similar path of “Green Book” director Peter Farrelly as he shifts from comedies to more dramatic works. Nominee for Best Director is only one of 11 nominations for the comic book based film, the most in this year’s award ceremony. While it is nice to see films that originated from graphic novels recognized for their importance, especially after the success from “Black Panther,” these 11 nominations do beg the question if this acknowledgement is too much. Joaquin Phoenix does give a thought-provoking performance as Arthur Fleck, but the only other special thing about the film is the score composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir. The plot follows a storyline similar to that of “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy,” where a protagonist finds comfort in chaos. This is a storyline too familiar in writing that only seems to work in this film given it’s plastered on a Batman villain beloved by fans. “Joker” may have been a box office success, but that does not mean it deserves to overshadow the creative stories produced by people such as Joe Talbot, Craig Brewer, and Josh and Benny Safdie.
Though the Safdie brothers’ latest film, “Uncut Gems,” received wide-spread acclaim and box-office success, the Academy shut it out entirely. And unfortunately, Adam Sandler’s work as Howard Ratner, where his comedic sensibilities informed and enhanced his dramatic work, resulting in a career-best performance, did not garner him a Best Actor nomination. Julia Fox, who matched Sandler’s energy and delivery in a fiery first performance, also deserved recognition. The Safdie brothers’ direction and screenplay, Daniel Lopatin’s synth-heavy score and Ronald Bronstein’s editing all worked in perfect harmony to craft a film that moves at a break-neck pace, a whirlwind of color and noise and high stakes that is impressive in its ability to disorient and entice viewers. All these aspects of the film are stellar and deserved the Academy’s recognition.
The Academy has had a long tradition of ignoring the artistic merit of horror films, and this year was no exception given only one person from a horror movie was nominated: Jarin Blaschke for Best Cinematography in “The Lighthouse.” One would think after the mainstream success of Peele’s “Get Out,” people would be more open to exploring the ideas that horror can express. While Blaschke definitely deserves a nomination for his work, the opportunities lost due to this disrespect toward horror in cinema is saddening. “The Lighthouse” could easily have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, with Willem Dafoe as lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, or for Best Original Score by Mark Korven. Korven does wonders with his mixture of boat horns, ocean sounds and ominous noises that exemplify the isolation of the protagonists.
Another horror that seemed to be ignored for Academy award nominations this year was Ari Aster’s film “Midsommar.” Set in the backdrop of a small Swedish community, viewers follow Dani (Florence Pugh), her psychologically abusive boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and friends as they explore the traditions of the midsummer festival and find the dark secrets that are held within this colony. While it is fantastic that Pugh received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Amy in “Little Women,” her work in “Midsommar” is enough to argue a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She plays a raw character who has been surrounded by sadness and lacks a proper person to release her emotions upon, producing a person in desperate need of self-love. Every scene with Pugh is emotionally visceral from start to finish and proves the prowess of her acting expertise. “Midsommar” should also have been considered for Best Original Screenplay for Aster’s well-composed writing, Best Cinematography for Pawel Pogorzelski’s haunting shots, Best Original Score for Bobby Krlic’s pagan compositions and Best Costume Design for Andrea Flesch’s floral-and-white clothing.
Along with “Midsommar,” many other films were snubbed when it comes to the Best Costume Design nomination. The category is a difficult one to judge, especially when one must compare the Civil War era dresses of “Little Women” to the late ’60s attire of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” However, “Joker’s” nomination is one that does not seem to fit as well as the other four given the only iconic outfit is the red suit worn by Phoenix. There were plenty of other films that had creative and accurate wardrobes that did not get the attention they deserved. Julian Day, costume designer for the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” created all the costumes for Taron Egerton. This included homages to classic Elton John looks, such as the crystal baseball uniform, which John wore during his Dodgers Stadium performance, as well as newer looks that capture the familiar energy of the performer. “Hustlers” designer Mitchell Travers did an excellent job in providing outfits that defined the confident energy of the protagonists, with his most notable one being Jennifer Lopez’s costume in her introduction performance. Finally, Ruth E. Carter from “Dolemite is my Name” captured the ’70s fashion style of African Americans and had an emphasis on turning Eddie Murphy into the over-the-top actor Rudy Ray Moore. She succeeds on this journey as every suit worn by Murphy visually exemplifies the attitude of the blaxploitation character Dolemite. This again proves the lack of diversity found within the Academy as the window of talent in all categories seems to be narrowed down to white people. Even though most of the nominees for Best Costume Design display serious talent in their craft, it is disheartening to know that these creators were ignored.
While every Academy Awards ceremony is sure to include snubs, it does feel as if this year’s nominees are like a broken record. The 2020 nominations constantly repeat the same five or six films and do not acknowledge the other talented actors, directors, writers and masters of their craft. One can hope that next year’s nominees will include more diversity toward gender, race and genre. Maybe the 2021 Academy Awards will have a Best Picture selection not dominated by white men fighting each other to figure out who’s the most masculine.
The 92nd Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Feb. 9, 2020 at 8 p.m.